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Friday, November 9, 2018


Hey guys, Eme here!
So. Anyone and everyone in the Lagos art scene would have probably heard that ART X, the art fair, took place in Lagos over the past few days. 

ART X has been a thing for the past 3 years now and usually when its on, we're not in Lagos. This was my first time attending and naturally I wasn't too sure what to expect. When I walked in, I was kind of overwhelmed. There were SO many people. They really managed to pull in a stellar crowd! There was, as expected a stunning collection of art on display and I have, after much deliberation managed to select 6 artists I particularly admired to share with you all. 

Before I get into it, I do have to say I regret not getting tickets for ART X live. It looked spectacular and the only thing better than getting to see the whole show on Instagram would be i guess, actually being there in person.

Okay, back to the list!


 'Kudi in the Garden'
Soji Adesina is a Lagos born multi-disciplinary and multi media artist whose works i've seen pop up quite a number of times this year. When I saw this piece at the fair, I was drawn to this woman with the most gorgeous black skin. She literally has her head in the clouds. She's in a happy place, just relaxin' and having a good old cup of tea. It was quite refreshing to see her represented in this way, especially considering these days black women seem to have the world on their shoulders.


'Pillars of Life: Strength'
Tadesse Mesfin is an Ethiopian born painter whose works are heavily influenced by Ethiopian culture and Egyptian sculpture. I like the way he represents the women almost as though they are traditional columns. Hence the suitable play on words in the title; 'Pillars of Life'. Mesfin represents his appreciation of these market women. I also find it interesting how he represents the market in this aura of grace and calm, as opposed to the rowdiness you would typically see in the representation of a market.

'Time and Other Constructs'

Musyoka's work houses elements of Cubism and Surrealism in its style. His work generally aims to address the legal, moral, and religious  constraints placed on members of society and how these affect their capacity to act. This particular piece, 'Time and other constructs' spoke to me as a means of shining light on the ways in which society places various limitations on its member through social constructs. Communities are becoming more and more controlled to the point that our ideas are unacceptable if they fail to fit a certain mould. Musyoka's work questions this and perhaps the rest of us should start questioning too.


'Isi Ewu na Nkwobi'
I also loved this Obeagu piece! His use of collage takes me back to my art A-level days when I referenced a lot of Takahiro Kimura  in my sketchbooks. I’m not sure as to whether or not there was any influence there, but Obeagu’s work was definitely very nostalgic for me.

Takahiro Kimura


I absolutely loved 'The Lagos Drawings' series featuring Kapo Akpokiere’s drawings, in collaboration with digital technologist, Desmond Okeke and musician, G.Rico. Through the use of conductive paint, Okeke was able to integrate sounds created by musician, G.Rico into the pieces. Whenever the viewer would go up and touch the painting, the piece would emit sounds engineered by G. Rico.  

The drawings themselves captured various aspects of contemporary life in Lagos. From street hawkers, to the abundance of generators and pollution. When coupled with the touch activated sounds, it really plunged the spectator into an all encompassing sensory experience of Lagos!  It is probably one of the most innovative pieces I've seen this year and I would love to see more technology being incorporated in art.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Man of the East: A Visual Analysis.

By Ushie Jedy-Agba.

Earlier this summer my friend sent me one of her paintings and I realized that I had basically spent the majority of my summer marveling at colonizer art and didn’t even explore the rich artworks of my country (Wakanda Forever). Ok, I’m actually Nigerian but still. Anyway, the painting has extremely strong Eastern Nigerian influence and is called “Man of the East” by Chimira Natanna.

Man of the East. Chimira Natanna.

It shows a man in rags going somewhere or looking for something that one might assume was work and prosperity (cause I mean if he was rich there would be at least ONE Gucci belt on him). This man is different though, because in most art forms when people are heading for a new better life they usually head west in order to chase that dream. Some notable examples are the Joad family in the Grapes of Wrath and Gatsby living in East Egg but the love of his life living all the way across in the West (I kinda feel him cause in the movie Daisy was bad I can’t lie). Anyway, it’s weird that this man is walking from west to east and vice versa so one can assume that just like the Joad family, this man moved to the west and found that the life he expected was nothing but fantasy. He is in rags so it’s either, he left because he couldn’t find work or he became worse off than before but one thing is certain is that the west ain’t it chief.

This particular painting is very important when talking in the context of the Biafran war era where Igbo people were not only unjustly persecuted but many Nigerians adopted colonizer mindsets and viewed everything white as more superior so would do their best to assimilate with white culture and leave theirs behind (I don’t know why someone would leave jollof for bangers and mash but to each their own). The man is returning back to the east, back to his homeland as he may have seen extreme poverty but from a different perspective he may not be doing that, he may be rebelling against the cultural erasure of the rest of the country and decides to stay true to himself. This is reminiscent of young artists in Paris and London in the early 1900’s who rejected a “normal” lifestyle and chose instead to live freely and live through their art and self-expression despite how hard it was. Most of them struggled to eat or even find a home but they remained to stay in poverty than to make money doing work they would not enjoy. This was them carrying on the starving artist trope which was first made popular, some believe, in the 1840’s by Henri Murger in his book “Scènes de la Vie de Bohème”. Conditions were harsh but these people didn’t care because they were living freely, loving freely and moving about freely but at the cost of drowning instead of dripping.

In another book, I can’t remember the name of, a young boy asks a man why he prefers to live off his art and be hungry than find proper work and eat. He responds, “I may be hungry but at least I'm not starving”, and some may think that man is crazy but this random man was saying that no matter how bad his situation is it could be worse. He also goes onto say that he may be poor physically but he’s rich in spirit. Bohemia looks down on the concept of physical money and has adopted free spirits and self-expression as its main currency.

Back to the man at hand anyways… So this man is seen walking from west to east and what’s significant as well is the natural setting behind him. We can see some plants and a bunch of grass behind him and this is the artists way of showing us his connection with nature in the sense that the same way plants die in the winter and start growing again in the spring and the sun rising in the east and sets in the west, therefore, the sunset on his life back in the west and his true self (the flower) withered and died as it was winter but the sun will rise again in the west and so will his flower of life as it does in the spring. He heads back east for new growth and new life to bloom once again.

Sunday, September 16, 2018


Jamaica-born photographer and filmmaker, Ryan Eccleston, came onto our radar recently. His main aim of documenting the black experience in its vastness drew our attention to him. He seems to be both writing and rewriting the story of the Global South in his own way with his constant exploration. We had the opportunity to ask him a few questions about his work and travels.

Tell us a bit about yourself. 

Hi, I’m Ryan Eccleston. I am a photographer & filmmaker. I was born in Kingston, Jamaica. However, I would describe my childhood as being very nomadic. So one could say it wasn’t a “normal” childhood. At 6 months old I moved to Cairo, Egypt and then later on to a small beach town in Northern Israel called Nahariyya. I pretty much spent my early years traveling between Lebanon, Cyprus, Syria, Jamaica, and The U.S as well. All this traveling was due to my dad working as a field service officer for the United Nations. We were always in transit and some form movement. But at 8 years old my father wanted us to get more acquainted with our culture. So he decided to settle us in Jamaica.

What ignited your interest in travel and documenting humanity within different cultures?

Because of the situation in my household where we would be in one situation for 6 months or a year etc. The fact that within a 2-hour flight we could be speaking a different language and being around different people. This was really highly stimulating to me as a child. It made me understand that this same world and time could be viewed totally differently. Considering who you were speaking to and from what perspective.

Could you recount a particular experience you’ve documented which struck you as particularly memorable?

A memorable experience for me, hmm… I would have to say filming and photographing in the Afar region of Ethiopia was an experience that stayed with me for many years. This was back in 2009. I had just moved to Ethiopia, my mind was just so open. I was 28 at the time and was just ready to see more of the world. It started out with me seeing images of the Afar region while I was in Addis Ababa. After that, I just began to read so much about the area and people. Then I made up my mind that I wanted to go. The region is very hot, the hottest place I’ve experienced ever. It was a very physically grueling experience, I fell ill due to the heat. But I overcame that to create a body of work that I was proud of. The landscape, the people, everything! I had never experienced anything like that before or after in my life. The frankness of the people that lived in the region and how they dealt with the reality of living in that environment. Even though I had been to many places and many experiences, this was something that stuck with me over the years. I have fond memories of those times.

Tell us about how you build relationships with your subjects (if at all you do), and how this contributes to the storytelling in your pieces.

I love having conversations with people whether we have the same viewpoint on a matter or not. I love learning! I really don’t mind being wrong. So many times, a lot of my work comes from an organic place. It normally starts with an itch I want to scratch (knowledge wise). So, many times a relationship is built around a debate or viewpoint on a subject. Many times my camera doesn’t even come out until the very end of that journey of discovery. So a lot of my images are results of conversations and some form of extensive research.

Your work centers on the human condition - specifically the black experience. What are your observations on what this experience is? Why have you chosen to report it, and how does it reflect in your work?

Well, I will start with by saying this, my choice of documenting the black experience was because it was a mirror to myself and my experiences. Being black, there were certain experiences that my subjects and I could connect on, even though being black is not a monolith. I like looking at the diversity of that experience, which goes from the Caribbean, mainland U.S.A, and the African continent and so on.

At what point do the narratives in your work develop? Is it something that is preconceived, or found in the editing room?

I would say the narratives are preconceived. 100%, these are things thought about beforehand consciously or subconsciously.

There is a wealth of documentation of the Global South. Many of which come from external voices. How do you think your voice, as someone from this area of the world, contributes to telling its story?

Yes, definitely there is a wealth of documentation about the Global South. But even though we are increasingly more privy to information etc. there are still stigmas, misconceptions, and half-truths that exist. A single narrative is always a dangerous thing. Growing up I would always notice how developing and poorer “Third World” countries were often portrayed and illustrated by the news. There was rarely, if any, nuance to a story. “These people were to be pitied not respected”, you the viewer should be thankful that you did not suffer this misfortune of being from one of these God-forsaken places. I think my voice contributes to telling the story because it is my reality. Being from the Caribbean and living in Africa we have similar challenges and concerns. Different but similar. There is a familiarity there, so my aim is to use my privilege of being able to travel and tell stories from a more intimate standpoint.

To discover and learn more about Ryan Eccleston as well as see more of his work visit his website here or his Instagram page here. Thank you for reading. 

Saturday, July 28, 2018


By Stephanie Amata 
Fragile 1, 2018. Acrylic and oil on canvas. 

One way to look at Eddy Kamuanga-Ilunga's work is as a deeply personal retelling of history. Kamuanga-Ilunga hails from The Congo and in the heart of his work is his perception of his country, a history lesson from his eyes.

Upon the first examination of his work, there is so much that greets you. The richly-colored fabrics jump out first, the deep black skin imprinted with circuits, the soft grey holding it all together. All these elements are not foreign in his oeuvre but there is something that sticks out in his recent body of work from his newly concluded exhibition at October Gallery in London, Fragile Responsibility. In this set, there's a new presence; a white face in the form of ceramic jugs, "Tunvas" that sits on the tables of the lamenting subjects in Kamuanga-Ilunga's set. The imagery is simple, plain as day, jolly, grinning white men overlook forlorn black bodies, but that is not all, Kamuanga-Ilunga has worked to fit in so much more in these pieces.

There's something about the space that I find compelling. It seems like it inherently belongs to the black subjects in these paintings. Maybe it is the familiar placements of lace-covered tables, the red coca-cola-like crates used as seats and the wooden stools that recall the settings of an African home or maybe it is how the subjects languish in anguish so comfortably; a safe space to cry. Which makes the intrusion of the grinning white man all the more sinister, echoing colonization in itself. The ceramic jugs also go beyond a mere presence of the white man but they also serve as a substitute for black bodies as these objects have their own history. During the slave trade, they were given in exchange for black bodies, also summing up another step in The Congo's history.

Fragile 7, 2018. Acrylic and oil on canvas.
But beyond the obvious presence of the white man as the ceramic Tunva, they exist in the presence of the most prominent feature of Kamuanga-Ilunga's paintings, the fabrics. In a talk, I attended with him, he thoroughly explained the history of the fabric as colonial merchandise, how Belgian cotton was made in Congo by the Congolese slaves. There are a few oddities that appear in the work, which Kamuanga-Ilunga uses to remind us that this is not just history but also the present. During the talk, one of the oddities was pointed out; the new presence of silk, while cotton is a familiar face in the work, silk was a new addition. He explained that silk and cotton have the same colonial relationship calling it "different timelines in the same history" as silk is also produced in Congo under similar duress.

Fragile 6, 2018. Acrylic and oil on canvas.
Then there's the grey that the subjects sit on top of. A vague, soft, untouchable grey. Quite poetically, Kamuanga-Ilunga likened the grey of the imagery to the actual far-fetched history of his home country. He knows it is there, it is present but just can't quite be reached or changed or touched. In a similar way, the text in the form of symbols that plague the background and occasionally hop into the foreground serve as another indicator of a lost and distant history. The lost language of a community with only gathered scraps of meaning left behind after being eroded away by colonizers. The layout of these symbols in Kamuanga-Ilunga's work recalls the style of the hieroglyphics on Egyptian relief relics, another strong tie into African history especially considering the relationship between Europeans and Egyptian history, its writing or rewriting and power.

To bring it all together to the present, I recall one of my first ever thoughts when I came across a Kamuanga-Ilunga piece. It had struck me as afro-futuristic which isn't the case now that I know more but somehow I can't seem to shake the reference. Maybe it was the cheap link between the black bodies and the motherboard-like circuits that flank them that made me arrive at my futuristic conclusion but I think there may be more. Excuse my film buff reference but I'd like to draw another link, hopefully not so cheap this time, between the Blade Runner franchise, specifically the replicants themselves and Kamuanga-Ilunga's black subjects. There's something quite deterministic about both sets of characters. Kamuanga-Ilunga's subjects are living lives doomed by their colonial history, caught in a cycle of forever addressing and facing this history, caused by (the white,though not unassisted) man. Similarly, the Replicants made by man are doomed to face their preordained fate (of expiration/being retired i.e. death), which they try to escape and be free from. In both cases, the subjects are trying to escape their fate arranged either via history or sheer manufacturing of ruin and continual destruction and erosion, unfortunately, this seems to forever haunt them and never really proves inescapable.

I've come to deeply appreciate this body of work. It is incredibly profound and striking. It is also worth noting the master craftsmanship that goes into the production of these pieces, some taking up to 3 months to be completed. These paintings are rich enough and beyond worthy of being in history classrooms as Kamuanga-Ilunga has provided, with his work, an education. 

Sunday, July 22, 2018


By Eme Ukpong

There has always been some what of a distinction between art and design. Despite the shared ability of both in  providing aesthetic pleasure and communicating profound meanings, design (good design at least) almost always serves a purpose beyond this. As put perfectly by Brendan Dawes, "The difference between art and design is that design is all about answers and art is about questions". Design communicates information in ways that normative language cannot. In a world where first impressions are everything, good design can show you all you need to know about a brand before you have to ask.

This week, we got in touch with the two promising designers behind Dá Design Studio, a brand identity design firm based in Lagos. I was doing a bit of web surfing on design and came across an article on the pair. After looking into them a bit further, I stumbled unto a podcast series they had done detailing their experiences as designers living and working in Nigeria. Safe to say it was captivating enough for me to email them straight away! If you're into design, or just interested in hearing about navigating the creative industry from a business perspective then this is definitely a podcast for you! You can listen to their latest podcast here.

The pair were kind enough to answer some questions on how they started the studio, the importance of 'visual identity', and being taken seriously as a creative business in Lagos:

Tell us a bit about yourselves.

We are Dami and Seyi, founders of Dá Design Studio. We are both Architects by training but individually and collectively passionate about brand identity design. As a team we are very laid-back people. We are design nerds. *laughs We are either designing or discussing design. Yeah, and we have a T.V culture, break time is for Netflix, watching The voice or MTV’s Are you the one? and of course, This is us.

How did you find yourselves in the Design industry in Lagos? 

During our time together at UNILAG. We were both very confident about our design thinking. We knew we were good at solving problems- the problem was the outlet. We were certain Architecture wasn’t the route we’d like. We both individually chose Graphic Design, then eventually we collectively found our niche in brand identity design. 

The Kofe Club - Brand Identity, Illustration, Motion

How did Dá Design studio come to fruition?

To be very frank. Outside of loving the idea of being our bosses, we just couldn't find a suitable agency or studio that was doing it in the way we strongly believed it should be done. Of course, our way isn’t the only right way, but it was very important for us not to loose sight of the why; you know? why we chose design to begin with. We always wanted to create a new narrative for design in the country, we wanted to actively push boundaries and enlighten our community about what design is and can be. We still do. So, setting up our own studio was for us the most feasible attempt at achieving our goals without distraction. So we did just that and we hope the studio becomes a safe haven for designers who share similar perspectives and dreams.

Warpaint- Branding, Packaging design, Illustration, Motion

What does your design process look like? Is it guided by any beliefs? Do you think your Nigerian background has any influence on your approach?

We really believe in resolution. From the moment we get a brief, to the first line drawn, we are working to reveal the solution from an almost essentialist perspective. We don’t have any specific styles we rely on, visually, we keep a very open mind. The only constant is our obsession with honest, resolved and effective communication. All this means is our work revolves around being highly contextual and conceptual. Considering that context is a very big part of how we design and we have a majorly Nigerian clientele, you can definitely see that Nigerian sauce in a lot of our work. Often times not out-rightly, but it’s right there, subconsciously breeding familiarity. As Nigerian designers, we get a lot of visual inspiration from our day to day lives in Nigeria. For instance, we are working on a typeface called Danfo Std. We can’t wait for it to be out, it’s really exciting. 

Danfo Std- Font Design

Are there any challenges to working as a designer in Lagos? What about any benefits?

The challenges are enormous because there isn’t a design movement. Modern design culture is relatively young. There’s a lot of convincing involved in the business. Aesthetic value is not a priority for many Nigerians and it is easy to see design through the narrow lens of aesthetics alone. People often omit its problem-solving aspect and label it a luxury venture as opposed to a fundamental aspect of building a brand. Aside from the regular infrastructural challenges of running a small business in Lagos, this is our biggest challenge. Design is not an intimate idea for many Nigerians, hence not often prioritized or well valued.

That said, this challenge is in itself also a blessing. We get to define what it means to us. There’s no enforcing of expectations or styles or even practice. We get to define the rules and make mistakes without guilt. Design in Lagos is untapped and underutilized, this means that those of us willing to depend on it and contribute to it at its infancy are very likely to be pioneers.

There's also a lot of inspiration here. There’s always something so deeply Lagosian to inspire you. Lagos gives us a unique perspective. We are inspired by its problems and it’s energy. We have a playing field to create design that impacts and communicate with a diverse and vibrant people often forgotten by the global design scene. 

In your podcasts, you talk a lot about ‘visual identity’. Can you talk a bit about what that means and its importance? Can you also talk about some Nigerian brands who have hit the mark in that respect?

Visual identity is basically the visual characteristics determining who or what a person or brand is. It encompasses the visual devices and visual language that help people recognise a brand. It includes a logo but it’s not limited to it. A logo is just one of the many visual devices that can be a part of a brand’s visual identity. Visual identity is an external appearance of the internal resolutions around a brand. Say, a happy playful brand that uses the colour yellow, they aren’t happy and playful because they use yellow, rather, they use yellow because they are. In turn, when you see the yellow, you get the sense that they are a happy and playful brand.Visual identity is a visual reflection of what a brand is, in a way that its audience can behold and relate to.

Visual identity should be both visually and conceptually strong. For us, good visual identity tells a story, the logo being just one part of it. With a good visual identity, your audience should think it’s you before they know its you. You don’t need to see the Glo logo on a billboard in Lagos before you think the ad is likely from Glo. Their adaption of the vibrant green, for instance, is very strong. We don’t exactly love their identity, but their use of colour is a good example of the point. Colour-centric visual identity; that is in the way MTN and Glo, for instance, both have bold colours that they own, can be quite predictable and old school, but it can also still be very effective and contextual. With where the world is headed, visual identity is much more than that… you know? Every visual encounter matters and people are doing mad things, really exploring the boundaries of brand expression and Nigeria needs to catch-up. A lot of the popular Nigerian brands don’t have cohesive visual identities, most times one part is strong and the other parts not so much. For instance, We like the typeface for Eco Bank, it’s really beautiful, but we think their dependency on color is boring. We also like Union Bank’s identity. That blue is special, we like how it contrasts the black and white patterns as well, but we also find the patterns themselves to be a tad bit pretentious. Alara seems to be headed somewhere nice, their identity is quite consistent, the architectural facadé feels like their patterns and their typeface fits just right, it also feels like just enough for what they do, so yeah, they are in the right direction and on tarred road.

Alara's visual identity (images sourced from https://www.instagram.com/alaralagos/)

Can you tell us a bit about how you handle running a professional business as a creative and being taken seriously in Nigeria?

The key is to know your spice. Understand that what you offer is important. We take ourselves seriously so it's hard  for others not to be seduced into taking us seriously too. We know that what we offer is valuable and we own it. There’s absolutely no reason to be humble about presenting the work you do as valuable. The default reaction in Nigeria isn’t “oh, let’s go and spend a ton of money on design” lol. That’s why you need to be loud about your value. When we say loud, we don’t mean forcing your views about your work down people’s throats. Naa, it’s more like speaking from a position of expertise. Recognize their problems before they even know it, tell them the value they can get from adopting a different perspective, value your time, speak with the right terminology, empathize with your clients.. etc. The more aware you are of your value, the easier it is to stick to a cost and convince others. The quickest route to that awareness is information and know how, invest in your skill, invest so much in learning about design. Invest so much that you are confident and you start to see making certain financial compromises as foolishness because of how much you've invested. Imagine going treasure hunting in the belly of a rare whale in the Amazon, then finding a rare ruby that turns ice to silver, will you not laugh in the face of anyone asking you to sell it for a few bucks? This analogy is quite silly and unrealistic but, it’ll do *laughs 

How do you balance pleasing the customer and at the same time staying true to creating good design?

Pleasing the customer for us is more about listening to them, empathizing with them and letting them know we have their back. We don’t even fake it, we genuinely get fond of our clients, learn from them and trust them back. This trust makes it harder for you to rely on the design to please them. Our clients know we truly care about their business and they understand that sometimes pleasing them design wise may not be what’s best for their business. If you genuinely connect with your clients, identify their problems and design to solve their problems, there’d be minimal clashes around design. They may have comments, which is perfectly fine, but they’ll trust your opinions. We also maintain a humble stance, where we are not afraid of our clients’ comments and feedback, we genuinely want to listen to them and solve their problems. Good design and pleasing the client are not on opposite sides of the coin. That said, please note that there are bad clients, eg; people who don’t respect their own business enough let alone caring about solutions regarding that business… there are so many other examples of bad clients. With bad clients, their repentance isn’t your duty. Close up the project the best way possible, either by a polite termination, refund or caving in, whichever works for you and the terms and policies agreed at the beginning of the project. 

You mentioned in a previous podcast, the lack of- and the need for- an established design community in Lagos– do you still feel that way? And what else would you like to see from the Nigerian design scene in the future?

We need better design schools. We also need an aspirational gratification system that really focuses on the quality of design work. Like our equivalent to the DandAD pencils. We don’t necessarily believe awards are the true reward or score for work, however having something of that sort will make it easier for us to collectively raise the bar. There are currently many setups doing something similar in Nigeria, however, none has really nailed it from an almost academic perspective of what exactly good design is. 

Community is really needed, individual growth is good but communal growth is even better. When we can collectively create standards and expectations around working as designers in Lagos or Nigeria even, we can progress much quicker and much more optimally. There’s so much we can learn from each other.

For more on  Dá design studio:

Twitter- @da_dsgn
Instagram- @dadesignstudio

Sunday, June 17, 2018


By Abayomi Folaranmi

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Acque Pericolose, 1981. 
“Before you get to him, you have to walk through a lot of hot air, because he became a local and then a global legend, and you have to ignore the screeches of the vultures who deal his work. Had he turned up for the opening of the recent show nominally celebrating his fiftieth birthday (he, in fact, died in 1988, at the age of twenty-seven), he would surely have turned up several days late.
When you find yourself, however, face-to-face with what Jean-Michel Basquiat made, it’s a revelation, as the many thousands of Parisians, queuing for an hour recently to get into the show at the Musée d’Art Moderne, had sussed out for themselves. They were of all ages, but the majority were young.
Confronting his work, or being confronted by it, has little to do with High Culture or VIPs but a lot to do with seeing through the lies (visual, verbal, and acoustic) that are imposed on us every minute. Seeing those lies dismembered and undone is the revelation.”

Those words are from an essay on Basquiat by John Berger, to whom much of the rest of this essay is indebted to. As stated, he was speaking of the exhibition in celebration of Basquiat’s fiftieth birthday at the Musée d’art Moderne in Paris, but he might as well have been referring to any occasion of seeing Basquiat, anywhere else in the world and at any other time. Most recently, the Barbican Art Gallery held the ‘first large-scale exhibition in the UK’ of his work.

Basquiat’s paintings are strange, difficult to grasp. They demand to be met on their own terms. They are an expression of a profound, highly individual sensibility, and require a selfless, entirely subjective response.

Let us consider Acque Pericolose, which Basquiat painted in 1981 when he was only twenty-one years old. From the Italian, the title translates as ‘dangerous waters’. It is also known in English as Poison Oasis. Crudely rendered in what we might take to be a desert - whatever the setting, it is clear that it is barren. A figure stands in the centre, arms folded across its body in a gesture of vulnerability. It is a man; the phallus inscribed at the meeting of legs are telling. So, a naked man. He is black, and wears a shock of dreadlocked hair. Uneven white lines within his frame evoke a skeleton. He is flanked by two animals: a poised rattlesnake on the left and a bovine carcass on the right, with flies buzzing over the rotting remains. In what we may take as a background, there are arrows crudely drawn, primitive like the rest of the picture, reminiscent of cave paintings. The colours are jarring, patchy, psychedelic. And what of the titular waters? Above the bull, a daub of blue, defaced with black and red lines. Perhaps a pond. The red smears about the painting suggest blood.

Let me lean on Berger again:

“He sensed that hidden truths cannot be described in any of the languages commonly employed for the promotion of lies; he saw every official language as a code of conveying false messages. His strategy as a painter was to discredit and split open such codes and to let in some vibrant, invisible, clandestine truths – like a saboteur. His ploy as a painter was to spell out the world in a language that is deliberately broken – ontologically broken.”

With Basquiat, the image comes before the word. This is true to nature:  the infant looks, sees, feels before he ascribes names to objects. Adam named the animals only after the Lord had created them. Whatever man called a creature, that was its name. We explicitly identify the snake and the bull as animals out of habit. Subconsciously, we place the man, the black man, among them. Basquiat is the night marauder, smuggling images into our minds, shaking up the place, leaving with our innocence as bystanders.

“This remark provides the key to the problem, how much truth there is in solipsism. For what the solipsist means is quite correct; only it cannot be said, but makes itself manifest. The world is my world: this is manifest in the fact that the limits of language (of that language which alone I understand) mean the limits of my world.”

-Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus

In a way, this painting, like so many others of this painter -and arguably all of them are- is a self-portrait. The dreadlocks, the undeniable blackness of the central figure.

An existentialist thread is woven into Basquiat’s work and it serves us to pick at the seams. There is always the problem of being-in-the-world, the original, inescapable problem. And especially for the black man. The negro, who in a racialised society is variously an animal or a zombie - a dead man walking, or standing still; always subhuman, is surrounded by death, danger and decomposition. Such a society is inimical to self-realisation.

May I be excused then for my skepticism upon seeing the well-informed, well-meaning white people of all ages, coming and going, talking of racism and tortured artists in the gallery rooms of the exhibition at the Barbican? How could they possibly claim to understand? And there were so relatively few black attendants too, for reasons I do not see much point in speculating on at present. The farce rather set my teeth on edge.

I must concede, of course, that being African and being voluntarily resident in a European country (to the extent that England can be called that), there’s a limit to what I can say about racism. That is to say, I can only practise some humility when I hear of the racial struggles of non-white people who have known no other reality than as minorities. The same applies even more so for people from such historically discriminatory societies as America or South Africa.

And yet, no one has a monopoly on existential struggles, with racism being just one of the several difficulties we must contend with. So, while I still doubt that white people can fully grasp the racial undertones of Basquiat’s work (that is, if even black people can do such a thing) there are certain universal things which speak to everyone: alienation, stagnation, hopelessness. Basquiat is a portal to radical freedom. As Berger tells us so insightfully, “each painted figure or animal or object imagined by Jean-Michel Basquiat has borrowed a T-shirt from Death in order to become impossible to arrest, invisible and free. Hence the exhilaration.”

He who was living is now dead
We who were living are now dying
With a little patience.
-T.S. Eliot, ‘The Waste Land’

VLADIMIR: …Let us not waste our time in idle discourse! Let us do something, while we have the chance....at this place, at this moment of time, all mankind is us, whether we like it or not. Let us make the most of it before it is too late! Let us represent worthily for once the foul brood to which a cruel fate consigned us! What do you say?

Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot

This painting, again not unlike the rest of Basquiat’s oeuvre, functions as a memento mori. Death, or should I say mortality, was a subject which preoccupied Basquiat. And like so many great artists, he seemed to have an acute sense that he would die tragically (although, with the drugs he did any fool might have guessed it). He lived his brief life passionately, before overdosing on heroin at the age of twenty-seven, seven years after he painted ‘Acque Pericolose’. At the height of his fame, he was the among the most famous artists in the world, the first popularly recognised black painter. He remains one of the greatest artists in history; a paradox, at once primitive and modern, crude and nuanced. His was a tortured life, colourful and vigorous but in the end, quite dark.

Art, of course -even popular art, with its inherent ephemerality- is one of the few means available to us of securing immortality. In spite of all the decay around us, art survives. Basquiat, with his complex, variegated consciousness are inseparable from his work. I have tried to avoid the hackneyed phrase, but I think is true that Basquiat lives on in his work, and therein he remains for those who are willing to go and meet him as they are.

Saturday, June 9, 2018


By Immaculata Abba

Earlier this month, I went to see the ‘Another Kind of Life: Photography at the Margins’ exhibition at the Barbican thrice. I intended to do so because I am obsessed with marginality: this quality of being, or regarded as being, outside the mainstream or centres of power. I am interested in alienation and resultant loneliness, in how the margins are brimming with creativity (because outsiders only have the option of creating another centre for themselves), and in the oppression, present in marginality more often than not, that makes marginal people marginalised. With these interests at heart, I went to the exhibition curated by Alona Pardo because it looked like an exposition on another way of regarding marginality and otherness. I was going to add it to my repertoire of tools on how to see, think about and engage with otherness.